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Claims

A Glut of Medical Causation Claims

Pinpointing whether a particular injury was work-related challenges physicians and employers. Some schemers take advantage.
By: | February 20, 2017 • 6 min read

So called “cappers” or “runners,” who are middlemen in fraud schemes, are illegally recruiting recently unemployed workers to file murky medical-causation allegations, helping to drive a surge in Southern California workers’ compensation cases.

“We are getting slammed with really unscrupulous lawyer-developed cases,” said Robert G. Rassp, a Southern California claimant attorney and author of the law blog “The Rassp Report.”

“They add in their claim not just the back injury, but psychiatric claims, sleep disorder and sexual dysfunction. They throw the whole book at the employer. Risk managers are going berserk over it.”

The participants in such schemes take advantage of California’s workers’ comp causation standards allowing the filing of cumulative trauma injury claims after a worker has been terminated, Rassp said. California further allows compensation when the causation is less than 1 percent work-related.

Even without the involvement of cappers, California’s liberal causation standards create headaches for employers in terms of apportioning between industrial and non-industrial factors behind post-termination cumulative trauma claims.

“We have a huge problem with this,” said a Southern California risk manager who asked not to be identified.

California’s laws are just one issue currently fueling more nationwide discussions about medical causation standards and the challenge of determining whether workplace exposures are responsible for specific cumulative trauma claims.

Robert Rassp, claimant attorney

Claims-payer desire for more states to adopt stricter injury-causation standards along with the shifting nature of jobs and worker demographics are also stirring those discussions.

Claims with questionable medical-causation assertions have always presented a conundrum for payers: Failing to challenge cases when the injury cause is not work-related leads to paying unwarranted benefits and emboldens others to file similar spurious cases.

Wrongly challenging claimants, on the other hand, when their medical conditions legitimately arise from work, can needlessly drive litigation costs, with the severity of those expenses depending on state statutes.

In Pennsylvania, for example, claims payers lacking a reasonable basis for contesting an injured worker’s petition may be ordered to pay the claimant’s lawyer fees and litigation costs, said Michael D. Sherman, a defense attorney at Chartwell Law Offices LLP in Pittsburgh.

Determining causation is easier when an obvious workplace accident, with witnesses, causes an easily identified injury like a severed finger or broken bone.

But with a cumulative trauma injury or chronic problem occurring over time, such as an inflamed shoulder or lower-back pain, confirming unequivocally that it arose during the course of employment challenges employers, injured workers and even doctors.

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Doctor training focuses on treating injuries, not on uncovering their cause, said Nancy Greenwald, a Boise, Idaho-based physician who treats workers’ comp patients.

“It’s one of the hardest things we do as physicians to really pinpoint what caused that particular injury,” she said.

Throw in the possibility of pre-existing conditions or an injury aggravation occurring after the industrial harm and making the right judgment call regarding the payer’s responsibility is even trickier.

While such scenarios present a challenge in determining the scope of legitimate claims, the schemers utilizing cappers in Southern California willfully take advantage to perpetuate fraud.

Last year, for example, a San Diego grand jury indicted doctors, medical providers and attorneys allegedly participating in a scheme involving cappers and $450,000 in illegal kickbacks.

Prosecutors allege it generated millions of dollars of fraudulent workers’ comp claims.

Other cappers have been busy in Southern California’s Orange and Los Angeles counties, soliciting workers who recently lost their jobs due to plant closings or other factors, Rassp said.

Rassp is alarmed by the practice because it increases claims payer suspicions, driving them to challenge more cases even when causation is legitimately work-related, he said.

Workers validly harmed on the job pay the price.

“If the problem is employment-related, deal with that.”– Stuart Colburn, a defense attorney at Downs Stanford P.C in Austin, Texas

A “glut” of post-termination cumulative trauma claims filed in Southern California perplexes employers who may delay benefit payments and create unwarranted friction with legitimately injured workers when they attempt to protect themselves, agreed Edward E. Canavan, vice president of the workers’ comp practice and compliance at Sedgwick Claims Management Services.

“It’s unfortunate,” because injured workers have families to care for, Canavan added.

The workers’ comp industry needs to consider legislative and regulatory changes to curb Southern California abuses while continuing to pay legitimate claims, Canavan said.

Nationwide, increased discussions about causation standards come after a number of states raised the level of medical evidence required to prove a work-related injury, said Thomas A. Robinson, co-author of “Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law.”

“There are at least a half dozen states that over the past decade and a half made it more difficult for the claimant to prove their case based on requiring more definite medical opinions,” Robinson said.

Debra Levy, SVP, York Risk Services Group

While implementation of those laws “has sort of snuck up on people,” claimant representatives are increasingly complaining about them while claims payers want legislatures in more states to adopt similar legislation.

Greg McKenna, senior vice president for external affairs at Gallagher Bassett, expects more states to consider reforms with strengthened causation standards.

But passage of such laws probably will depend on balancing them with increased benefit amounts, he said.

“I really think lawmakers and employers are wrestling with a new kind of workforce,” McKenna said.

In the past, when workers remained at a single job for years, employers could more easily accept workplace responsibility for cumulative trauma, McKenna said.

But with workers frequently changing jobs, and perhaps even working a second job in the “gig-economy,” employers are asking whether they should accept cumulative-trauma injuries that workers may have acquired during previous employment.

Similarly, an older U.S. workforce raises questions about whether injuries are work-related or stem from age-related continuous degenerative processes.

The aging workforce, general increase in co-morbid conditions and uncertainty over group health make it more important than ever for payers to confirm that alleged injuries actually resulted from workplace accidents, said Maureen McCarthy, senior vice president, workers’ compensation claims, at Liberty Mutual.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Labor report released in 2016 reviewed the impact of state laws with stricter causation standards that increased the burden of proof required for claimants to prove a workers’ comp claim, Robinson noted.

The report said that “issues of causation of injury or illness have always presented challenges.”

It added that “there is substantial cause for growing alarm,” because of increasingly complex challenges workers face with new causation standards requiring work to be the major contributing cause of disabilities.

Observers fret that the DOL’s report will drive federal intervention in state workers’ comp programs.

That still leaves the common challenge of filtering out other injury causes from workplace causation. The number of cases presenting those challenges can shift.

For full report: www.cwci.org/store.html

The Texas Department of Insurance, for example, has seen an increase in injured workers challenging the findings of designated doctors. They are requesting a “causation analysis” to determine issues such as maximum medical improvement, impairment rating, and extent of injury, a TDI spokesman said.

The department has not determined why more causation challenges are occurring.

But defense attorney Stuart Colburn at Downs Stanford P.C. in Austin said claimants have grown smarter at meeting requirements for challenging doctor findings that determine issues such as the extent of injury and return-to-work ability.

Mitigating claims with questionable causation issues calls for employers to identify the problem’s origin, Colburn said.

Employers experiencing multiple, unwitnessed, soft-tissue injuries should take a “big-picture approach” to learn, for example, if issues such as problematic employer/employee relations or the frequent assigning of unpleasant tasks is driving claim filings, he advised.

“If the problem is employment-related, deal with that,” Colburn said.

Return-to-work programs can help reduce unwarranted claims when workers realize they will be assigned other tasks rather than receiving time off, Colburn said.

Do not allow claims examiners to become jaded and assume a battle is lost when a jurisdiction’s laws, such as California’s, frequently work against favorable outcomes, said Debra Levy, senior vice president of product management and national workers’ comp practice leader at York Risk Services Group.

“Adjusters shouldn’t say, ‘That’s just the way the state is,’ without thoroughly investigating a claim,” she said. &

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Manufacturing

More Robots Enter Into Manufacturing Industry

With more jobs utilizing technology advancements, manufacturing turns to cobots to help ease talent gaps.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 6 min read

The U.S. manufacturing industry is at a crossroads.

Faced with a shortfall of as many as two million workers between now and 2025, the sector needs to either reinvent itself by making it a more attractive career choice for college and high school graduates or face extinction. It also needs to shed its image as a dull, unfashionable place to work, where employees are stuck in dead-end repetitive jobs.

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Added to that are the multiple risks caused by the increasing use of automation, sensors and collaborative robots (cobots) in the manufacturing process, including product defects and worker injuries. That’s not to mention the increased exposure to cyber attacks as manufacturers and their facilities become more globally interconnected through the use of smart technology.

If the industry wishes to continue to move forward at its current rapid pace, then manufacturers need to work with schools, governments and the community to provide educational outreach and apprenticeship programs. They must change the perception of the industry and attract new talent. They also need to understand and to mitigate the risks presented by the increased use of technology in the manufacturing process.

“Loss of knowledge due to movement of experienced workers, negative perception of the manufacturing industry and shortages of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and skilled production workers are driving the talent gap,” said Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting.

“The risks associated with this are broad and span the entire value chain — [including]  limitations to innovation, product development, meeting production goals, developing suppliers, meeting customer demand and quality.”

The Talent Gap

Manufacturing companies are rapidly expanding. With too few skilled workers coming in to fill newly created positions, the talent gap is widening. That has been exacerbated by the gradual drain of knowledge and expertise as baby boomers retire and a decline in technical education programs in public high schools.

Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting

“Most of the millennials want to work for an Amazon, Google or Yahoo, because they seem like fun places to work and there’s a real sense of community involvement,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance, Daimler Trucks North America. “In contrast, the manufacturing industry represents the ‘old school’ where your father and grandfather used to work.

“But nothing could be further from the truth: We offer almost limitless opportunities in engineering and IT, working in fields such as electric cars and autonomous driving.”

To dispel this myth, Holden said Daimler’s Educational Outreach Program assists qualified organizations that support public high school educational programs in STEM, CTE (career technical education) and skilled trades’ career development.

It also runs weeklong technology schools in its manufacturing facilities to encourage students to consider manufacturing as a vocation, he said.

“It’s all essentially a way of introducing ourselves to the younger generation and to present them with an alternative and rewarding career choice,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to get across the message that just because we make heavy duty equipment doesn’t mean we can’t be a fun and educational place to work.”

Rise of the Cobot

Automation undoubtedly helps manufacturers increase output and improve efficiency by streamlining production lines. But it’s fraught with its own set of risks, including technical failure, a compromised manufacturing process or worse — shutting down entire assembly lines.

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More technologically advanced machines also require more skilled workers to operate and maintain them. Their absence can in turn hinder the development of new manufacturing products and processes.

Christina Villena, vice president of risk solutions, The Hanover Insurance Group, said the main risk of using cobots is bodily injury to their human coworkers. These cobots are robots that share a physical workspace and interact with humans. To overcome the problem of potential injury, Villena said, cobots are placed in safety cages or use force-limited technology to prevent hazardous contact.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them.” — David Carlson, U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader, Marsh

“Technology must be in place to prevent cobots from exerting excessive force against a human or exposing them to hazardous tools or chemicals,” she said. “Traditional robots operate within a safety cage to prevent dangerous contact. Failure or absence of these guards has led to injuries and even fatalities.”

The increasing use of interconnected devices and the Cloud to control and collect data from industrial control systems can also leave manufacturers exposed to hacking, said David Carlson, Marsh’s U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader. Given the relatively new nature of cyber as a risk, however, he said coverage is still a gray area that must be assessed further.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them,” he said. “Therefore, companies need to think beyond the traditional risks, such as workers’ compensation and product liability.”

Another threat, said Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting practice leader, Lockton Companies, is any malfunction of the software used to operate cobots. Then there is the machine not being able to cope with the increased workload when production is ramped up, he said.

“If your software goes wrong, it can stop the machine working or indeed the whole manufacturing process,” he said. “[Or] you might have a worker who is paid by how much they can produce in an hour who decides to turn up the dial, causing the machine to go into overdrive and malfunction.”

Potential Solutions

Spiers said risk managers need to produce a heatmap of their potential exposures in the workplace attached to the use of cobots in the manufacturing process, including safety and business interruption. This can also extend to cyber liability, he said.

“You need to understand the risk, if it’s controllable and, indeed, if it’s insurable,” he said. “By carrying out a full risk assessment, you can determine all of the relevant issues and prioritize them accordingly.”

By using collective learning to understand these issues, Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting, said companies can improve their safety and manufacturing processes.

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it.” — Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it,” Mayo said. “They can also use detective controls to anticipate these issues and react accordingly by ensuring they have the appropriate controls and coverage in place to deal with them.”

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Manufacturing risks today extend beyond traditional coverage, like workers’ compensation, property, equipment breakdown, automobile, general liability and business interruption, to new risks, such as cyber liability.

It’s key to use a specialized broker and carrier with extensive knowledge and experience of the industry’s unique risks.

Stacie Graham, senior vice president and general manager, Liberty Mutual’s national insurance central division, said there are five key steps companies need to take to protect themselves and their employees against these risks. They include teaching them how to use the equipment properly, maintaining the same high quality of product and having a back-up location, as well as having the right contractual insurance policy language in place and plugging any potential coverage gaps.

“Risk managers need to work closely with their broker and carrier to make sure that they have the right contractual controls in place,” she said. “Secondly, they need to carry out on-site visits to make sure that they have the right safety practices and to identify the potential claims that they need to mitigate against.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]